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TRG Briefs


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									                                   TRG Briefs

          Remodeling the fundamentals
        What's at stake as Ontario considers
          changing the electoral system
                          IPAC Toronto Regional Group
                           Monday September 17, 2007

On October 10, 2007, Ontario voted on whether to keep the present "first pass the
post" electoral system or change to a "Mixed Member Proportional" system - a form
of proportional representation. IPAC decided to host a forum in advance of the
referendum to help inform participants about the implications of the choice.

IPAC invited a distinguished panel to discuss the issues, including possible impacts
on the public service:
    Will it change the relationship between politicians and public servants?
    How will public servants serve coalition governments, with ministries headed
     by members of different parties?
    Will it make governments less stable?

The result was a stimulating fireside chat for the panelists and the audience.

The session panel:

Melissa Williams, who teaches history of political thought, contemporary
democratic theory and multi-culturalism at the University of Toronto. She acted as
moderator for this session, and provided factual background and context for the

There had been remarkably little coverage in the media on debates and issues
related to the referendum. Prof. Williams suggested the main thrust of the proposal
is to add value to each voter's ballot, by providing an opportunity to vote for party
representation in the legislature, as well as for a candidate in the riding where they
reside. This way even if their preferred candidate is not elected, they will still
influence the composition of the legislature. She noted that one of the provisions
on which opinion remains divided, even among those who support MMP, is the
percentage threshold below which parties would not qualify for proportional
representation in the legislature. She also pointed out that in theory and in the
experience of other jurisdictions an important consequence of this type of
proportional representation is that it generally results in minority or coalition
governments. Under MMP no party is likely to get a majority of seats.

Peter Russell taught political science at the University of Toronto from 1958 to
1996 and frequently comments on public affairs in the news media. He argued the
case in favour of MMP. Prof. Russell’s three points in favour were:

1. It will produce better "Political Justice". In democratic terms, every vote will have
equal value, which is not the case under the current system.
2. Systems of proportional representation such as MMP produce the best balance
of interests. Experience in New Zealand indicates that this system results in a lot of
"vote splitting" - meaning voters often vote for candidates from smaller parties, and
under represented parts of society (for example, in Canada this might relate to
Aboriginal or environmental parties).
3. MMP removes the problem of "false" one-party majorities - which generally
result from distortions produced by "first past the post" systems. These systems
enable a party to "capture" parliament, even though their majority represents less
than 50% of the electorate.

Russell said that the current "first past the post" process produces concentrations
of power around the premier/prime minister and little effective debate is allowed.
The leader of the majority and his political advisers take control of government in
order to control the messages going to the public through the media. Parliament
and substantial debate is virtually closed down. That is not parliamentary
government! There should be some debate - particularly where the government
only represents 45% of the population.

Russell said that the alternatives in the referendum boil down to a choice between
"prime ministerial government" and "parliamentary government".

It is certain that the MMP process will produce minority governments. There are
three election outcomes possible: a) single party minority government; b) coalition
minority government; and c) coalition majority government.

Minority governments can produce good government. Canada has been mostly
governed by minority governments, both provincially and federally, and these have
provided very effective governance. There have been 12 federal minority
governments since confederation, and they accomplished a great deal. The main
problem has been that they tend to be short governments. The MMP option will
help stabilize minority governments.

There will be more parties under the MMP system - but setting the threshold for
representation at 5% of the vote, rather than 3% as in the current MMP proposal,
would ensure that there will not be not many new parties. New Zealand has set a
lower threshold for proportional representation at 3% of the vote. The number of
parties there has settled down to 5 to 6 parties: two or three big ones, and several
smaller "balance of power" parties. New Zealand voters now have fairer
representation. Political processes under MMP have not suffered from the pitfalls
forecast. Scandinavian countries have had the same experience.

Andrew Stark is a specialist in management ethics, Canadian constitutional power
politics and public administration at the University of Toronto. He has been a policy
advisor in the Prime Minister's office and a guest scholar at the Perkins Institution.

Prof. Stark said that the work of the Citizens Assembly that designed the MMP
proposal was admirable, but there are virtues to existing, settled systems, and risks
with new inventions.

The critical weakness of the current system is that most campaigns focus on "swing
seats", and there are "wasted” votes for small parties on the losing side. For both
systems there are groups that get shut out.

Under MMP, the election will only be the opening move in setting the government’s
agenda. Real decisions will depend on the coalition negotiations, which take place
away from public scrutiny. Canadians are uncomfortable about parties “making
deals”. They expect them to stand for something. Under the MMP, or proportional
representation, compromises can be abandoned at the next election. No party
need defend the policies and actions of the government of which it was a part.

In the first past post system voters often find themselves voting strategically, and
required to make internal compromises. Getting the voters to deal with compromise
is a virtue. It is required for good governance, and voters should have a voice in
some of those compromises.

Drawing from the New Zealand experience, here are some of the effects that MMP
might have on the public service:
1. We might find deputy ministers reporting to ministers of different parties - which
could create some fuzzy conflicts with their colleagues and reduce information
2. It may become difficult to find a clearly stated and stable policy.
Interdepartmental conflicts could escalate. Compromises and political tussles will
rub off on the public service.

The discussion

Russell said that Nepal offers a good example. In Nepal large numbers of un-
represented minorities existed. They went to proportional representation as a
remedy. You are much more likely to have minorities represented using
proportional representation.

MMP will force leaders to address concerns about equal representation when they
compose their "lists" in advance of the election as to how they will select members
as a result of the proportional vote their party receives

By and large minority governments are more active and creative. Having some form
of proportional representation avoids the landslide election results we have too
often seen in Canada.
Russell said that good debate within a majority government parliament is
impossible. That in a nutshell is the reason for proportional representation. Our
current system allows for "presidential rule" and a dictatorial Prime Minister's office,
filled with inexperienced, non-elected hot shots who are at liberty to dominate and
muzzle ministers and deputies who do not toe the party line.

Q. How does proportional representation work in heterogeneous vs. homogeneous
societies? In Canada will the general consensus start to fray?

A. Proportional representation is supposed to better accommodate heterogeneous

Q. Would a threshold lower than 5% make a difference in Canada?

A. Yes. Although it's interesting to note that the Green Party received only 2.8% of
vote in the last election, and therefore would not gain representation even if the
threshold was reduced to 3%.

Q. Will the proportional lists and perpetual minorities improve the decorum and
gender representation in government debates?

A. There is some evidence that proportional representation enhances
representation by women and minorities.

Each party will decide how to fill their proportional lists. Diversity may improve, but
is not really an issue of proportional representation. Parties will experience similar
pressures under either system.



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